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Careers Clinic: How do I avoid only getting acting jobs for adverts?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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I know I’m in a position many actors might envy, but I still need some help with my next move. I started off as a walk-on in commercials and moved up to regular roles including a few featured ones for top brands. My main type has been described as “nerdy” and while I can play other roles, I certainly don’t object to working in that persona. I do want to do more dramatic and comedy roles, though, so last year I left my commercials agent and signed with one who covers the full range.

The problem is that while I’m now getting a lot of different castings, I’m still only booking the commercials. My agent isn’t too upset about this as the buyouts are often very good. As for me, realistically, I can’t afford to turn the money down either. But I do worry that the more of these jobs I take, the more I’ll be seen as a ‘commercials actor’ and not achieve my longer-term goals.

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE Like it or not, the reality of casting (at least in relation to general breakdowns sent out for agents and actors) is that playing age and physical appearance are still major factors. This particularly applies to commercial castings, which often deal in ‘typical’ characterisations.

Unfortunately, despite increasing nods towards diversity, the notion of what constitutes ‘typical’ can be frustratingly narrow. There are certainly casting directors working proactively to change the landscape, but the brands who hold the purse strings may be less flexible. It doesn’t surprise me that if you are already getting cast in particular scenarios and character types, you are likely to have more of the same coming your way.

You are right that lots of actors I know would love to be in your position. I can also understand why your agent is keen for you to keep doing this kind of work. Although I have no doubt the commission is welcome, it might not just be about the money. Many casting directors concentrate on commercials, but others cover a wider range of projects. That doesn’t make your own concerns about not wanting to be boxed into a particular area invalid, but it provides a good illustration of how the roles of an agent and a personal manager differ. Good agents keep an eye on their clients’ career direction but focus on this goal tends to take a secondary role to their primary concern of getting the client work. Unless you can afford to engage a personal manager separately (as is more the norm for US actors), you will need to own the ‘forward planning’ aspect of your career yourself.

You moved agents to broaden your options and you have established that you are being put forward for “all types of castings”, so in that regard your agent is doing their job. Unless your face is seared into our memories from a national campaign (I have known this happen once or twice), I’m not sure the main issue is being seen as a “commercials actor”. While you are obviously on top of your game in commercials auditions, your technique for other kinds of casting may need work.

I can think of several actors I first noticed in commercials who now turn up regularly in prime-time drama and comedies. I suspect some of their ad earnings were invested in one-to-one coaching or headshots suited to other jobs. Taking a similar approach should help you reach the point where you know you can secure different types of work and can then make real career direction choices.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

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